Get Mythic *UPDATED*

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Frank Frazetta, “The Sorcerer”

Author Corey McCleery recently made some excellent points about how magic is treated in fantasy fiction:

There’s more, and it’s worth reading the whole thread. (And oh yeah, you can also find me on Twitter where I shill books and talk writing and culture). I’m glad Corey discussed Robert Jordan, as he was one of the first authors that came to mind when I first saw this thread, as an example of both how to mythologize and over-explain.

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An Aes Sedai (magic user) from The Wheel of Time weaving threads of the One Power

I’ll let Corey’s discussion of Jordan suffice. All I’ll add is that Jordan’s entire world feels mythological. It has that gravitas Corey laments is missing from much modern fantasy he’s read and, magic system aside, Jordan includes plenty of unexplained mysteries like the Aelfinn and the Eelfinn and their weird powers and realms.

I can agree. One of the most fun aspects about The Lord of the Rings is that Tolkien doesn’t really explain who Gandalf and Saruman and Radagast are or why they know magic. Or how their magic works. Or why the elves exist. Or how Sauron has so much power and exists as a giant, flaming eye. Tolkien hints around the edges, and you can learn way more than you ever imagined you could in all the posthumously published material. All you need to know is that Middle Earth has a weight to it, an air of the unexplained, that makes the world feel that much more real.

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Gandalf

I get the same sense reading a Conan tale by Robert E. Howard. There is dark magic in the world, and you should be very wary of its practitioners. I got the same sense from Tad Williams’ Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn series as well–Pryrates is a freaky dark magician and the Sithi are basically immortal elves and I don’t need to know why to understand how the story works.

The classic Super NES game Final Fantasy VI gives me a similar sense of mythos: Magic comes from possessing magicite, the crystallized remains of magical creatures known as Espers. But here’s the kicker–there’s no over-explaining about who the Espers are and why they exist. They’re magical creatures who live in another realm. No more is needed.

Final Fantasy VII isn’t de-mythologized per se, but materia–the crystallized essence of mako energy, the energy that powers the planet, isn’t very mythic. And Final Fantasy VIII almost gets there with the Guardian Forces, creatures that become a part of the users mind and impart abilities. That said, all magic can be drawn from other living creatures and even refined from everyday items. It’s cool, and the mechanics aren’t over-explained, but it just doesn’t feel mythic.

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The Esper Ramuh in Final Fantasy VI

The mythic, the sense of wonder, is important in a genre called “fantasy.” The modern trend towards “deconstructing” and “demythologizing” things that humans have been participating in for millennia is ugly and deliberate. “Rationality!” proponents exclaim. “Skepticism!” “An end to superstition!”

“Progress!”

It’s anti-human, and it’s a trope I’m right about sick to death of.

Humans need myth. Myth speaks to the unknowable in a way that all the academic theories that are supposed to perfectly explain the world do not. Because there are some things humans will never know. What arrogance to think we’ll ever be able to know everything.

This shouldn’t be a cause for misery. It’s a cause for celebration. When we are actually able to touch the ineffable, we feel it in an indescribable way. Some things, better things, are beyond our comprehension. Myth in all its forms, in addition to religion, helps us get there. As long as it points to the truth.

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Of course, this isn’t limited to fantasy. And putting philosophy aside, a sense of the mythic will supercharge your writing with a connection to the deepest human feelings we all share and make your work stand out from the depressing postmodernism we see all around us.

Go ahead. Get mythic.

Update: Commenter, blogger, and fellow author The Frisky Pagan of Emperor’s Notepad published a companion piece to this post, delving deep into magic in general. He makes a lot of excellent points, some bound to be controversial–check it out because there’s some good stuff in there, as usual from his site.


My novel A Traitor to Dreams takes place in the present day and involves high technology, but also has a healthy dose of the mythic. Read it today and let me know what you think!

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15 comments

  1. Corey nailed why I don’t like most modern fantasy, aside from the bloated lengths of the books. Everything always has to be explained and nothing can be left to the audience’s imagination anymore.

    “Magic comes from X and is caused by Y. Do Z and you can also wield it!”
    “The gods are actually mortal!”
    “I have the hidden scroll about the history of the world that explains what the ruler doesn’t want you to know.”
    “I’ve been alive for thousands of years and I’ve never seen a miracle or anything magical.”

    None of that is ever interesting, all it does is strip the mystique out of the world. This is their version of the anti-adventure attitude in science fiction. They hate wonder and imagination. It’s also something else the pulps got right that has been ejected since fandom took over.

    To think that fantasy authors still want to mimic a failed fantasy magazine like Unknown instead of the much more successful Weird Tales. Sometimes authors are more interested in trying to be clever than they are in entertaining the audience.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Anti-adventure! That’s perfect.

      Over-explaining ruins so many rich, vital stories. I go back to my days reading comics: one of the best aspects of the character Wolverine was his UNKNOWN origin. It was so fun and exciting. And when you’d get little glimpses, you filled in the gaps. Every fan theory was as plausible as any other. It made the character more compelling.

      Magic is the same way in a fantasy setting. I enjoy the unknown.

      Like

  2. Alexander,

    Your post reminds me something a physicist said: the universe works because the complex codes are hidden.
    So ordinary people don’t need to sweat the details because the world just works.
    It’s the same with stories. Don’t bug me with unnecessary details that interfere with a fun story

    xavier

    Liked by 1 person

  3. […] Get Mythic, by Amatopia, commenting on a Twitter thread about the decline of a “mythical” feeling in fantasy. The gist of the idea, at the risk of simplification, is that contemporary fantasy has a materialistic feeling. It lacks “a richness, a whiff of the unearthly that permeates everything. Magic is the best word to describe it.” Wonder, awe, whatever you want to call it. Essentially the opposite of a setting where magic has been reduced to supernatural engineering or a form of energy manipulation described by a language (both by the narrator and characters) analogous to the one ushered by the scientific revolution. […]

    Liked by 1 person

  4. This is the exact same conclusion I came to regarding Fantasy, both modern and old, only articulated better than I could. The more I read not only older fantasy writers from Howard to Tolkien to C.S. Lewis, to Dunsany and George Macdonald, to many authors from Weird Tales, but even older literature like Gothic romances, the old Epics and stuff like that, the less appealing modern fantasy is precisely because that sense of myth, of unearthly, of wonderment is not present.

    The best example I can think of is A Song of Ice and Fire; from the very beginning, the most interesting aspect to me about Martin’s epic was never the political intrigue, or the characters, or everything else people like to applaud about that series; it was the main enemy themselves, the undead army. Martin, for all his faults, managed to capture a sense of unease and mystery regarding them that made them compelling every time they were discussed or appeared in the story. Hell, even the title for them, “The Others”(a much better title than “The White Walkers”), gave them a sense of supernatural unearthliness that made me want to advance through the otherwise annoying soap opera just to see where he went with it.
    But Martin decided to focus more on human drama rather than the real appealing thing about his story, the magical aspects. It’s why I don’t consider A song of Ice and Fire true fantasy. The TV Show also went ahead and ruined The Others by explaining their origin, instead of leaving it vague.

    This mythical feeling can work in Science Fiction as well; the best example of which is Star Wars, the original trilogy, of which, as more time passes the more I am convinced Lucas should’ve never extended it beyond that original trilogy. He never managed to capture that sense of mythology again.

    It’s true; we really need to get back to the mythological roots.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Sci-fi absolutely benefits from the same sense of wonder and myth, and the original Star Wars is a perfect example.

      I too liked early ASoIaF the most, particularly the first two books, because there was a lot of unexplained, ancient and eldritch magic going on. Later it became horrible people doing horrible things which, while well-written, got old.

      Like

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